What an Iraq Vet Sees in the Recent HBO War Documentary, Only the Dead

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Ware reporting in Iraq. Photo: ranco Pagetti/VII Photo Agency/courtesy of HBO

Longtime war correspondent Michael Ware’s HBO documentary, Only the Dead, which premiered in late March, closes with an intimate and protracted scene of an insurgent dying. While the young man chokes and wheezes, the American soldiers around him are too tired and distracted to even fully commit to their own dismissiveness. In voice-over commentary, Ware confesses his own feelings of guilt for not intervening somehow. He could have cleared his throat, he says, and that would have been enough to prompt the American medic to take action.

Ware fumbles around for some lesson to be taken from his moral failing, settling on the old cliché that war brings out the evil potential that is in everyone. But the images of the dying insurgent remain seared into your mind’s eye, capturing the essence of the film: disturbing granular details of the violence of war with scant attention to political context. It’s a vision of war as natural disaster, unavoidable and best approached with a sort of stoic fatalism. It’s compelling, but it’s incomplete.

Freud famously described the uncanny not as something totally alien, but as the familiar made weird — the things closest to us slightly altered and causing a kind of cognitive dissonance. Only the Dead had an uncanny aura around it for me. There was so much in it that I recognized. The documentary is based on the hours upon hours of footage that Ware captured during his seven years in Iraq, so we’re given an intimate portrait of minute-to-minute life inside of forward operating bases in the most dangerous areas of Iraq. Moving among the soldiers and Marines with ease, Ware captures the crack of bullets as they pass overhead, the uncertainty and fear of being an occupying soldier in an alien culture, and the nihilistic humor that acts like a psychological pressure release valve. When Ware brings us inside a bunker in Ramadi, I notice the troops have written on the walls with Sharpies. I did the same thing in Baghdad. Crude slogans and childish doodles. I could feel the scabs being peeled off of my own old psychic wounds, and I experienced a brief, profound connection with the young men in the footage.

That’s the documentary at its best. But there are so many moments where it’s just … off. Moments played for drama, where Ware, narrating in a raspy Bane-like voice, oversells the action in front of a swelling orchestral score. Hence the uncanny. My own experiences as an infantryman who deployed to Iraq twice weren’t full of seductive violence. Because here’s the thing: Violence isn’t necessarily seductive. It wasn’t to me, and it wasn’t to a lot of other people I knew. Violence, in and of itself, isn’t really very interesting. It’s a banal event with profound moral implications. It’s disturbing without actually being exciting. For the soldiers on the ground, it’s a job, even if an almost sacred one. For the insurgents opposing them, violence is a means of communicating something outside of the violence itself. But Ware focuses on the bloody limbs, the caved skulls, the rivulets of blood running through dusty streets like a man gazing hypnotized into the near distance. What did the violence mean to Ware?

War correspondents identifying too much with fighters themselves is problematic. Of course war journalism is important. That almost goes without saying. But — and I remember thinking this about adrenaline junkies covering the war when I was a soldier — you can leave whenever you want. That dark force compelling you to abandon your family and occupy a war zone for years on end isn’t necessarily shared by the people that you’re covering. You’re not the one whose country has been invaded. You’re not the kid who never left his hometown until he went to basic training, the one who has all the duties and responsibilities of a professional soldier. To be fair, Ware is up-front that he’s telling the story of his war — but it’s a narrative that sometimes slips into a solipsistic mode. The actual worlds of both the soldiers and insurgents get short shrift. We’re ostensibly given a glimpse into the rise of terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s proto-ISIS organization, but what that actually translates to is extended action sequences of fire fights punctuated with occasional mutilation, torture, and explosions.

And that’s unfortunate, because Ware does have access to people on all sides of the fight. He becomes intimate with insurgents. They trust him, ride around with him, and pass him information and videotapes. At one point he even begins going out with them while they attack coalition forces. The first attack he accompanies them on is a rocket attack on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport. It’s the same area that I was stationed in during my first deployment. Not knowing the date or exact location, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone I knew was killed in the attack that he was filming. Can there be anything more illustrative of the civilian-military divide in this country than at the same moment that the entire Eastern Seaboard is involved in a collective ritualistic pearl-clutching over Gay Talese’s alleged journalistic infractions something of this magnitude slides by unnoticed?

There are many, many things about Only the Dead that bother me. But in spite of myself, I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen. I’m thankful that Ware’s footage was released at all, in any form, even if this documentary lacks the self-awareness and depth to make it truly successful. Any glimpse at the experiences of American soldiers, even one seen through a keyhole, is valuable. A rift does exist between the everyday lives of civilians and the military violence that is conducted in our name. But that rift is deep and structural, and even a perfect war documentary couldn’t repair it.